One of the ways authors build tension in their stories is to question a character’s trustworthiness. We all want to believe that the people we live and work with are who they seem to be. When that’s called into question, we sometimes start to question everything, and that’s very unsettling.
It is in crime fiction, too, and that unease can add much to a story. It’s got to be done carefully, or it can seem melodramatic. But if it’s done well, that unsettling feeling can build suspense.
In Agatha Christie’s Hickory, Dickory Dock, Hercule Poirot is asked to solve the mystery of a puzzling series of events that have been taking place at a hostel for students. On the surface, all of the people who live there seem to be decent, hard-working young people. But someone’s been stealing odd things, and there are other strange events, too. One evening, one of the students, Celia Austin, confesses that she is responsible for several of the thefts, and it’s believed that the matter is settled. But the next night, she dies of what turns out to be poisoning. Now, the hostel manager, Mrs. Hubbard, has to face the fact that one or more students may not be innocent at all. Here’s what she says about it:
‘‘…it would distress me very much to think that one of them is – well, not what I’d like to think he or she is.’’
And that turns out to be the case. As Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out the truth, we see the tension building as various students’ real selves come out, and the question of who can be trusted comes up.
Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need, which he wrote in 1968 as Jeffery Hudson, features pathologist Dr. John Berry, who works at Boston’s Memorial Hospital. Berry gets drawn into a very difficult case when a friend, Dr. Arthur Lee, is accused of causing the death of a young woman named Karen Randall. It’s alleged that he performed a (then-illegal) abortion on the victim, and the operation went wrong. Lee says that he did not perform the abortion, and he wants Berry to help clear his name. But that’s not going to be easy. The victim’s father is the legendary Dr. J.D. Randall, one of the most powerful people at the hospital. Still, Berry wants to believe his friend, so he starts asking questions. But it’s soon clear that someone doesn’t want him to find answers. Now, he has to work out who can be trusted and who can’t, and that adds to the tension. There’s even the question of whether Lee is telling the truth. All of this builds suspense in the novel as Berry gets closer to finding out what really happened.
A great deal of the tension in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives comes from this same question of who can be trusted. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. All seems to go well when the Eberharts arrive. The family members settle in and make new friends. Then, Joanna’s friend, Bobbie Markowe, begins to suspect that something is wrong in Stepford. Joanna doesn’t believe her at first; and, in any case, Joanna has no desire to move right away after just having purchased a house. Then, some strange and eerie things begin to happen, and Joanna starts to wonder who, exactly, can be trusted. The tension builds as she tries to make sense of what might be doing on. And soon, she sees that she may not stay alive long enough to find out.
Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? introduces readers to Yvonne Mulhern, who has just moved from London to Dublin with her husband, Gerry, and their newborn daughter. Yvonne doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and she’s not overly fond of Gerry’s family (with some good reason). What’s more, Gerry’s gone a lot, trying to make good in his new job, which means that Yvonne is left with the vast majority of the baby care. Exhausted and overwhelmed, she needs support. When she discovers an online forum called Netmammy, Yvone thinks she’s found that support. It’s a group for new mothers, and the members offer all of the commiseration, advice, and more that Yvonne wanted. Then, one of the members goes ‘off the grid.’ Yvonne contacts the police, but there’s not much they can do with what she’s told them. Not long after that, though, the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an abandoned apartment. Her description is close enough to Yvonne’s description of her missing friend that they could be the same person. Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle and her team work to find out who the woman is, and whether she was a member of Netmammy. And Yvonne faces the frightening thought that she no longer knows which members are who they say they are, and who in her life is trustworthy.
And then there’s Brad Parks’ Faces of the Gone, in which we meet Newark, New Jersey journalist Carter Ross. He’s a reporter for the Eagle-Examiner who gets his chance at a major story when the bodies of four people are found in an abandoned lot. At first, the police theory is that the owner of a nearby bar hired someone to kill the victims because one of them robbed his bar. The others, so it is claimed, were accomplices. But Ross doesn’t believe that explains everything, and he starts looking more deeply into the matter. He soon finds out that very little is what it seemed, and that some people in high places want this story – and Ross – killed. Part of the tension in the story comes from the fact that Ross doesn’t know who to believe, and who is trustworthy.
It’s a scary feeling, if you think about it, not to know who can be trusted and who can’t, even among people you count as friends. It builds tension in real life, and it does in crime fiction too. So, it’s little wonder we see that trope so often.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Imagine Dragons’ Gold.